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Holt Renfrew targets the fashion-minded man

As retail rivalries heat up, Holt Renfrew’s CEO Mark Derbyshire is looking to bolster his men’s clothing business.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Mark Derbyshire is working at wooing his male customers, one shopper at a time.

The chief executive officer of luxury retailer Holt Renfrew – known best for its women's fashions – recently took a former customer out for lunch to find out why he was no long heading for Holt's. It turned out the stores' hours didn't work for the man. So Mr. Derbyshire invited him to his downtown Toronto flagship at 5 a.m. one day.

The customer walked out with about $30,000 worth of purchases.

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Holt's is putting a new push on men's wear just as its key competitors – including Harry Rosen, this country's top upscale men's clothier – are moving in a similar direction.

"It's looking at how the woman lives and how the woman wants to shop – it's now applying that same logic to men, through a men's lens," said Mr. Derbyshire, clad in a slim-fitting Paul Smith gray wool suit ($1,700 retail), typical of the sort of clothing he wants to sell more of in his stores.

Holt's faces a pitched battle as it sprints to bolster its men's business. High-end U.S. department-store retailer Nordstrom is preparing to set up shop here with its high-profile men's fashion department, while chains ranging from U.S. fashion purveyor J. Crew to the Bay are revving up their own offerings in Canada. Holt's will feel the pressure of drawing more men as it races to launch an online selling site – perhaps by next year – while its key competitors have a virtual head start.

Still, the market segment is growing more attractive as men focus more on their appearance in a rocky economy and a tough job market. In the 12 months to the end of July, sales in Canada's $7.4-billion men's apparel industry grew 4 per cent, while those in the $13-billion women's market slipped 1 per cent, according to researcher NPD Group.

For Holt's, "it's a very on-trend growth strategy, given what we're seeing," said Kathy Perrotta, director of fashion at NPD. "But they're going to have to steal market share from somebody."

Mr. Derbyshire said he's ready for the fight, with a plan to bolster his overall retail space by 40 per cent by 2015. The Holt's store at Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto will become his prime laboratory for his men's focus; he's now decided to double the size of that outlet in all – initially he planned a 40-per-cent expansion – by next summer.

At the same time, Harry Rosen has its own plans to add almost 40 per cent of men's fashion store space over the coming years. "We're far from sitting on the sidelines," said CEO Larry Rosen.

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Mr. Derbyshire is adopting a similar road map for men at Holt's as he used for women, but with some twists. For example, he's considering changing the signature Holt's magenta shopping bags to another hue that may appeal more to men.

He's focusing more on top-selling luxury lines such as Tom Ford and Hugo Boss and dropping weaker ones; offering fewer promotional discounts and instead attracting customers back with new products (at full price) in the stores more often; and holding more events – public and private – such as fashion shows and celebrity appearances, including Elton John on Saturday at the main Toronto store for a charity event.

So far, the strategy seems to be working. Since he arrived at the top job 2-1/2 years ago, sales at privately held Holt's have jumped 27 per cent, he said. Profit doubled in 2010 from 2006 and is expected to hit another record this year, he said. Overall, the retailer's annual sales are estimated to be close to $800-million and aiming to reach $1-billion in two years, analysts say.

Still, increases in sales of men's wear, which make up about 15 per cent of Holt's annual business and are targeted to reach 20 per cent by the end of 2015, have lagged those of women's fashions, a spokeswoman said.

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